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Tantra (Sanskrit: loom), tantric yoga or tantrism refers to any of several esoteric traditions rooted in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. Extolled as a short-cut to self-realization and spiritual enlightenment by some, left-hand tantric rites are categorically rejected as dangerous by most orthodox Hindus.
There are two paths in Tantra: One is the Right-Hand path or Dakshinachara (also known as samayachara) and the other is the left-hand path called vamachara. The latter is associated with many ritual practises that go against the grain of mainstream Hinduism, including sexual rituals, alcohol and other intoxicants, animal sacrifice and flesh-eating.
According to another popular view, tantra is classified as either red (drawing on sexual energy), black (drawing on life energy released in killing) or white (dawing on divine energy.)
Some tantric aspirants simply feel the union is accomplished internally and with spiritual entities of various kinds. For this reason, almost all Tantrik writing has a gross, higher and subtle meaning. This tripartite system of understanding readily obscures the true purport of many passages for those without the neccessary background or deeper understandings so crucial to Tantra. Thus, a ‘union’ could mean the actual act of sexual intercourse, ritual uniting of concepts through chanting and sacrifice, or realisation of one’s true self in the cosmic joining of the divine principles of Shiva and Shakti in Para Shiva.
According to John Woodroffe, the foremost scholar on Tantra, and translator of its greatest works (including the Mahanirvana Tantra):
” The Indian Tantras, which are numerous, constitute the Scripture (Shastra) of the Kaliyuga, and as such are the voluminous source of present and practical orthodox “Hinduism.” The Tantra Shastra is, in fact, and whatever be its historical origin, a development of the Vaidika Karmakanda, promulgated to meet the needs of that age. Shiva says: “For the benefit of men of the Kali age, men bereft of energy and dependent for existence on the food they eat, the Kaula doctrine, O auspicious one! is given” (Chap. IX., verse 12). To the Tantra we must therefore look if we would understand aright both ritual, yoga, and sadhana of all kinds, as also the general principles of which these practices are but the objective expression.” (Introduction to Sir John Woodroffe’s translation of “Mahanirvana Tantra.”)
The word “tantra” means “treatise”, and is applied to a variety of mystical, occult, medical and scientific works as well as to those which we would now regard as “tantric”. Most tantras were written between the 10th and 14th centuries CE.
While Hinduism is typically viewed as being Vedic, the Tantras are not considered part of the orthodox Hindu/Vedic scriptures. They are said to run alongside each other, The Vedas of orthodox Hinduism on one side and the Agamas of Tantra on the other. However, it is notable that throughout the Tantras, such as the Mahanirvana Tantra, they align themselves as being natural progressions of the Vedas that exist for spiritual seekers in the age of Kaliyuga, when Vedic practices no longer apply to the current state of morality and Tantra is the most direct means to realization. Thus, aside from Vajrayana Buddhism, much of Tantrik thought is Hindu Tantra, most notably those that council worship of Lord Shiva and the Divine Mother, Kali.
A tantra typically takes the form of a dialogue between the Hindu gods Shiva and Shakti/Parvati, being that Shiva is known in Hinduism as being ‘Yogiraj’ or ‘Yogeshwara,’ ‘The King of Yoga’ or ‘God of Yoga’ and that his consort is known to be his perfect feminine equal. Each explains to the other a particular group of techniques or philosophies for attaining moksha (liberation/ enlightenment), or for attaining a certain practical result. [Agamas are Shiva to Shakti, and Nigamas are Shakti to Shiva.]
This extract from the beginning of the Yoni Tantra (translated by Mike Magee) gives an idea of the style.
- Seated upon the peak of Mount Kailasa the God of Gods, the Guru of all creation was questioned by Durga-of-the-smiling-face, Naganandini.
- “Sixty-four tantras have been created O Lord, tell me, O Ocean of Compassion, about the chief of these.”
- “Listen, Parvati, to this highly secret one, Dearest. Ten million times have you wanted to hear this. Beauteous One, it is from your feminine nature that you continually ask me. You should conceal this by every effort. Parvati, there is mantra-pitha, yantra-pitha and yoni-pitha. Of these, the chief is certainly the yoni-pitha, revealed to you from affection.”
Tantra as a post-Vedic Hindu Yogic movement began in North India and flourished in the middle ages before declining in the nineteenth century, partly as a result of persecution by the British and orthodox Hindus, and partly, perhaps, because of the increasing popularity of bhakti yoga amongst the masses.
Legend ascribes the origin of Tantra to Dattatreya, a semi-mythological yogi and the assumed author of the Jivanmukta Gita (“Song of the liberated soul”). Others see Lord Adinath, or Shiva, as the first Guru of Tantra. Things become a little more clear with Matsyendranath (“Master of fish” – so-called either because he was a fisherman, or, less probably, because he discovered a tantra inside a fish). He is accredited with authorship of the Kaulajnana-nirnaya, a voluminous ninth-century tantra dealing with a host of mystical and magical subjects, and occupies an important position in the Hindu tantric lineage, as well as in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. His disciple, Gorakhnath, founded laya yoga. Hatha Yoga was penned by Swami Swatamarama as the secrets of Lord Adinath (another name for Shiva) in the 15th century.
Tantra evolved into a number of orders (sampradaya) and diverged into so-called “left-hand tantra” (varma marg), in which sexual yoga and other antinomian practices occurred, and “right-hand tantra”, in which such practices were merely visualised. Both groups, but in particular the left-hand tantrists, opposed many features of orthodox Hindu culture, particularly the caste system and patriarchy. Despite this, Tantra was accepted by some high-caste Hindus, most notably the Rajput princes.
Hindu Tantra spread out from India, chiefly to Tibet, where it became the Vajrayana school of Buddhism. It also had some influence on Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, and even briefly enabled a yogic/sufi synthesis among some Indian Muslims. Nowadays Tantra has a large, though not always well-informed, following worldwide. It is primarily practiced authentically in West Bengal, Kashmir and South India, as well as in Tibet.
Because of the wide range of groups covered by the term “tantra”, it is hard to describe tantric practices definitively. The basic practice, the Hindu image-worship known as “puja” may include any of the elements below.
As in all of Hindu and Buddhist yogas, mantras plays an important part in Tantra, not only for focussing the mind, often through the conduit of specific Hindu gods like Shiva, Ma Kali (mother Kali, another form of Shakti) and even Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of wisdom (refer to the Ganesha Upanishad). Similarly, puja will often involve concentrating on a yantra or mandala.
Tantra, being a development of Atharva Vedic and pre-Brahmanical thought, embraced the Hindu gods and goddesses, especially Shiva and Shakti, along the Advaita (nondualist Vedic) philosophy that each represents an aspect of the ultimate Para Shiva, or Brahman. These deities may be worshipped externally (with flowers, incense etc.) but, more importantly, are used as objects of meditation, where the practitioner imagines him- or herself to be the deity in question.
Tantriks generally see the body as a microcosm; thus in the Kaulajnana-nirnaya, for example, the practitioner meditates on the head as the moon, the heart as the sun and the genitals as fire. Many groups hold that the body contains a series of energy centres (chakra – “wheel”), which may be associated with elements, planets or occult powers (siddhi). The phenomenon of kundalini, a flow of energy through the chakras, is controversial; most writers see it as essential to Tantra, while others regard it as unimportant or as an abreaction. As it is, kundalini is nothing but the flow of the central sushumna nadi, a spiritual current, that, when moving, opens chakras, and is fundamental to the siddhi concept that forms a part of all tantra, including hatha yoga.
As stated before, actual sexual intercourse is not at all a part of all tantric practice, but it is the definitive feature of left-hand Tantra. Contrary to popular belief, “Tantric sex” is not always slow and sustained, and may end in orgasm. For example, the Yoni Tantra states: “there should be vigorous copulation”. However, all tantra states that there were certain groups of personalities who were not fit for certain practices. Tantra was personality specific and insisted that those with pashu-bhava (animal disposition), which are people of dishonest, permiscuous, greedy or violent natures who ate meat and indulged in intoxication, would only incur bad karma by following Tantrik paths without the aid of a Guru who could instruct them on the correct path.
Sexual intercourse, preferably with a low-caste partner, was one method by which traditional left-hand practice forced practitioners to confront their conditioned responses. Others include the eating of meat (particularly beef and pork) and drinking of alcohol. Fear has also been used as a method to break down conditioning; rites would often take place in a cremation ground amidst decomposing corpses. This, of course, also falls under the prerequisite of the practitioner’s nature, in such cases demanding a vir- (heroic) or even devya- (godlike) -bhava (disposition of purity, self-control, suppression of pride, respect to parents and guru and often celibacy.
Tantra is used, in the West, as a general term which relates to sexual practice as a spiritual evolutionary scheme. There are in fact many different approaches as to how this manifests in American society. There have been many civilizations which have deified sexuality as the most approximate expression of cosmic love or God. Regardless, the point is that tantra is moldable. It changes with each moment and environment. It especially depends on the nature of the practitioner.
In traditional pockets of Tantric practice in India, such as in Assam near the venerated Hindu temple of Kali, Kammakha, in parts of West Bengal, in Siddhanta temples of South India, and in Kasmiri Shiva temples up north, Tantra has retained its true form. Its variance in practice is seen, where many tantrics are known to frequent cremation grounds in attempts to transcend their worldly attachment to life, and others are assuredly performing still more arcane acts. But what is common to them all is the intense secrecy in which their secrets are kept and the almost godlike reverence paid to the Guru, who is seen as a the pinnacle of Tantra. It would be safe to say that every single Hindu Tantra Yogin in India is a Shiva and/or Shakti worshipper, and the more wide-spread practices to which all Hindus commit themselves, like pooja and worship through devotion, are maintained while more occult yogic practices involving sacred rites continue. Tibet too has a very strong Buddhist Tantric background which continues, albeit many have been transplanted to monasteries in India, but can be said to widely cleave to the right-hand path, in contrast to the more varied Hindu counterparts.
Modern Tantra may be roughly divided into practices based on Hindu and Buddhist, Indian and Tibetan, traditions. In America, a mutilated and extremely narrow-minded, sensationalist approach encompassing only a misguided thinking about “sacred sexuality,” with little reference to its true practice, has captured the Western mind. Real Tantra involves much more than mere wizardy or sexual titillation: like the rest of Yoga (Hindu and Buddhist), it requires self-analysis and conquering of material ignorance, often through the body, but always through a pure outlook of the mind. Those without a guru or lacking in discipline of the mind and body are unfit. It is telling that a Tantrik in West Bengal, a devotee of the Hindu goddess Kali, once said that “those most fit for Tantra almost never take it up, and those least fit pursue it with zeal.”
- For two well-known Tantrik practitioners, see Shri Ramakrishna (Hindu) and the Dalai Lama (Buddhist).
- Shiva Shakti Mandalam contains an introduction to Hindu Tantra and an exhaustive collection of links.
- Mookerji, Ajit (1977) The Tantric Way: art, science, ritual. London: Thames and Hudson. A general introduction.
- Woodroffe, John (1913/1972) Mahanirvana Tantra (Tantra of the Great Liberation). Available online at . A late tantra, but one of the best known.
- Bagchi, P.C. (ed.), Magee, Michael (trans.) (1986) Kaulajnana-nirnaya of the school of Matsyendranath. Varanasi: Prachya Prakashan.
- International Journal of Tantric Studies. Available online (subscription required) at